February, the supposed month of romance, as advertised was far from joyful in Hong Kong. In just one month, five students chose to end their lives after having been suffered overwhelming pressure and stress.

Another – a 12-year-old - was stopped by the authorities. She told her family that it was because she could not bear the pressures of school. Numbers of youth suicides have been climbing since 2013.

Is our education system the killer?

This alarming situation has many parties pointing their fingers at the Hong Kong education system, blaming it for placing enormous pressure on teachers and students. “Going to school was like going to prison,” said Yu-Ling Chan, a fourth-grade primary school student who later transferred to an international school.

Academic stress has become a ‘normal’ phenomenon throughout Asia, where grades and scores are deemed to be of primary importance in order to secure a seat in prestigious schools or universities. The exam-oriented education systems and rigid ranking of schools exerts further pressure on educators and students. This is similar in South Korea, with the leading cause of death for those between 15 and 24 being academic stress; as well as Singapore and India, which have also seen teenage suicides increase drastically.

In response to these accusations, education sector lawmaker Kin-Yuen Ip disagreed with these claims, and highlighted that blaming the education system solely is a “dangerous” accusation.

A spokeswoman from the Education Bureau echoed Ip’s comments, pointing out that simply associating suicide with a single reason does not provide a constructive solution as there are many underlying issues including mental health, family relationships and adjustment to school life that need to be considered. Neglecting such underlying causes may instead delay the proper interventions in preventing youth suicides.

Depression and suicidal ideations prevalent

A city-wide survey conducted by the Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service and the Institute of Education between October 2014 and April 2015 revealed that half of all 10,000 secondary school pupils surveyed showed signs of depression.

Approximately 20% exhibited moderate to severe depressive symptoms, with close to 24% having considered suicide in the 2 weeks prior to the survey.

Are current governmental efforts sufficient?

This situation has prompted the government to initiate the Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides last year. The group has tried to understand the causes of student suicides by studying data provided by the World Health Organization, and compared Hong Kong’s figures with those of countries including Korea, Japan, the United States and Australia and others.

“Overseas studies showed that more than 90% of suicides were associated with mental illnesses, whilst this was seen in 20% of local student suicides. This indicates that students with mental health problems are not being identified early enough or provided with the appropriate support,” said Professor Paul Yip, Chairperson of the Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides.

The government has also promised to provide all schools with more psychologists. To provide timely counselling, the Education Bureau is proposing one-on-one consultation sessions for students who suffer from mental illness. Once diagnosed and confirmed by a doctor, the respective school can apply for subsidies from the Bureau, which can be used for the consultation or training for teachers, who in turn can provide more a more effective care plan for these students.

Yuen-Fun Chow, Chairman of The Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong, commented that life education is neglected in the education system of Hong Kong. Consequently, students do not acquire the importance of self-worth and appreciation life.

Besides providing one-to-one counselling sessions for students, a long-term solution may lie in the Hong Kong education system allowing for greater flexibility in operating schools, encouraging artistic development and alternative education schools. Such efforts will provide better opportunities for students to develop in diversified fields and find their niche without mountainous pressures to excel only academically.

Hopefully, a 12-year old choosing death substantially reflects the need to preserve an innocence of childhood, a childhood free from unnecessary stress. MIMS

Read more:
The no-suicide contract: does it help?
Mental health in Hong Kong: failing system and its consequences
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